If you’re familiar with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones you know that the Stones are perceived as, well, more wicked. Truth be told it was the Liverpool Lads who were getting into fights and playing all night gigs hopped up on amphetamines while Mick and Keith are from middle class backgrounds. The Stones saw the light of the movie screen early on and have consistently made concert films and participated in docs throughout their career.
Perhaps rightly so, the Stones withheld Cocksucker Blues from distribution for years – not because it’s bad (it’s actually quite good), but because it’s behind-the-scenes-of-a-concert-tour footage is inflammatory to the wrong demographics (moral crusaders), borderline incriminating and hedonistic in ways that would make Dionysus both jealous and proud. Shot and directed by Robert Frank the film has a low-fi grainy texture and constantly seems to be seeking the decadence that occurs on the sidelines of rock shows. In other words, the focus is not on the songs, certainly not like Gimme Shelter (1970, one of the best music docs ever by the way), but what it’s like to get high on heroin and lay naked on the hotel bed rolling joints and chilling out.
Mind you it’s not the Stones themselves who appear naked, bushes in full view (although one shot of Mick has him in his underwear). Those fucking and shooting up and generally having a good time are various functionaries like roadies and groupies. Sure, one of the Stones tosses a television set out a hotel window but that seems staged, as if to say there’s a camera in the room. What comes across as spontaneous are scenes like one in the private tour jet, where some of the roadies are banging a groupie and as the action gets heated, oral and graphic the Stones pick up acoustic and percussive instruments and start playing a thrusting musical interlude. It’s a moment that’s not only downright medieval in its primitive nature, but also kind of embarrassing.
While the film was never released back in the day the Stones allowed Frank to show the film once or twice a year and with the provision he must be present. Currently CS Blues can be shown four times a year and Frank doesn’t have to be in attendance. So when Cocksucker Blues plays twice this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Frank isn’t scheduled to appear. One of the landmark photographers in mid-20th century art, Frank’s archive is stored by the MFAH. Some of his excellent short films like Pull My Daisy or even a 28-minute doc on Frank (d. Philip and Amy Brookman) called Fire in the East are also available through their museum store.
The edition showing Friday and Saturday night is a digital version that has been restored and frankly looks great. Remember though that the film itself is not a model of composition or framing but rather fly-on-the-wall jerky and at times some brilliant imagery seems to occur by happenstance. Other notables viewed include Cocaine, Warhol, Capote, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and recognizable others. I especially like the tinny sound of a lot of the audio that only enforces CS Blues’ unpolished theme of being in the moment. One sequence has the Stones driving through the South in a station wagon and it’s like something out of This Is Spinal Tap. The boys are talking with what could only be described as a couple of old codgers in front of some country store or farm and yet all the dialogue shows a respect for music that transcends generations.
The last time this film played theatrically in Houston was a one-time event at the Tower Theater (now a Mexican restaurant on lower Westheimer) in 1986. I had only seen a bootleg version myself until a recent morning museum press screening. The big screen emphasizes CS Blues’ appeal as a rock artifact, as a time capsule and occasionally as proof of the talent of the prancing musicians. Plus there’s the added cinematic fetish of being in a sold-out crowd and watching to see what your neighbors think of the most salacious footage.
- Michael Bergeron